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The Spectacular Desert

How the Coachella Valley became a backdrop for a multimillion-dollar experience economy

Driving along the 10, from the high desert to the low, I stared down at the Desert X app on my phone. The topography of the Coachella Valley was bulleted with a dozen or so black pins on the satellite map, the mountains reduced to a few erratic lines. Desert X, an art biennial, had installed a number of site-specific works across the length of the basin, and I was trying to see as many as I could. Glancing again at the GPS coordinates, uncertain of where I was heading, I thought about the letter X: avatar of the unknown, portent of treasure. X marks the spot. I eventually pulled up to a wash on the side of the road as a light wind gusted. A few people, casting long shadows in the sand, stood arrayed around a neon orange cube, the object fluorescing against the muted swells of Mt. San Jacinto, their phones like talismans thrust into the warm air.

While Desert X claims to address a host of progressive social issues—indigenous rights, environmental collapse, gun violence—its politics (and carbon footprint) suggest a more complicated narrative. Artistic director Neville Wakefield, known for his collaborations with Nike and Cartier, has made a career of parachuting artworks into visually extreme resort cities. “I live in New York, so I was interested in this sort of manifest destiny of the migration west,” he said about the 2017 exhibition. Alongside multimillion-dollar attractions like Burning Man and the Coachella Music Festival, Desert X is the latest public spectacle to market the desert as a scenic backdrop, a passive object of cultural consumption premised upon the colonial view of the desert as “empty” land. By integrating the works’ GPS coordinates—that gift of military intelligence—into their branding, Desert X mimics modes of imperial occupation, turning each visitor into an explorer. Part of the spectacle is the sheer territory conquered by the biennial, which stretches over fifty-five miles, from Palm Springs to the northern edges of the Salton Sea, an accidental lake sunk so far below sea level that the shore crunches with the bones of dead fish.   

The prevailing feature of the desert in the popular imagination is its blankness.

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation,” wrote Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire. This is a common perception of the desert: a romantic wasteland, an antidote to modernity, a place whose metaphysical properties signify more than the human and other-than-human worlds that exist there. “Early on in the process, it was no problem to explain things, intentions, artwork. That’s changed,” said Desert X co-curator Matthew Schum, who lives in Los Angeles. The experience in the desert, he claimed, transformed him into “the dumb, stumbling mystic,” emancipated from language and reason, “looking for an escape from civilization.”

The prevailing feature of the desert in the popular imagination is its blankness, which has primed it for all sorts of exploitation. “The desert of Desert X is the blank canvas . . . ” Wakefield writes in the exhibition statement, despite the fact that Southern California has been home to the Cahuilla people for at least the past five thousand years. “If the desert is indeed God without man, then Desert X is art without constraint,” he goes on to say, riffing on Balzac. Beginning in the nineteenth century, as the tide of settler colonialism inched ever closer from the East Coast to the Pacific, the deserts of the American West have long been seen as tabula rasa on which to execute any number of grandiose schemes—drag races, nuclear waste dumps, gold mining, atomic bombs, alien temples, solar farms, luxury homes, utopian experiments. The desert has been enlisted to reflect any range of dire moods, from the apocalyptic to the paradisal.

Despite knowing all this, I too had come to the desert in search of serious nothingness, for a vacancy so absolute it might feel transcendental. Jobless and lacking direction, I moved to the Mojave after finding a gig online caring for an ancient cat named Aura while its owner was gone. On the side, I was hired to clean an Airbnb purchased, but never lived in, by a woman who runs a vintage store in Los Angeles, where I retuck the satin sheets, water the cactus, wipe pubic hairs from the toilet, sweep withered joints from ashtrays, and eat whatever leftovers might be abandoned in the fridge while I count the pink lawn chairs, as instructed, to ensure they are all still there.

When I first traveled West alone for my cat-sitting job, through Ogallala, Denver, Sante Fe, and Phoenix, watching the grasslands turn to mountains and the mountains to dunes, all while posting photos of the extravagant topography, I found myself thinking more about the picture of the experience than the experience itself. I thought of that trip while scrolling through the Desert X hashtag on Instagram, encountering image upon image of Sterling Ruby’s “Specter.” The biennial traffics in the optically friendly. In 2017, Doug Aitken’s mirrored house “Mirage” went viral, and the biennial’s press release touts the “millions” it reached through social media, in addition to the two hundred thousand live visitors. The centerpiece of this year’s biennial, located near the entrance of Palm Springs, Ruby’s orange cube sits in the alluvial fan of Snow Creek, a sandy wash that leads to the base of the nearly eleven-thousand-foot Mt. San Jacinto, its summit glazed with snow. Ruby’s blue-chip gallery Gagosian describes his work as “influenced by the sociological implications of urban demarcation, vandalism, and the power struggles of gang graffiti. In his paintings, acts of defacement are transformed into a painterly sublime.” Gazing upon the cube, its alien glow in stark contrast to the pale tones of the valley, I felt again the inescapable urge to take a picture.

In the frontier imagination, picturing nature was part of its possession.

Works like Ruby’s are often to public art what subdivisions are to architecture: cookie-cutter interventions that quote nature while disturbing it, expensive products alienated from the land in which they sit. As Lucy Lippard once wrote, “much land art is pseudo rural art made from a metropolitan headquarters.” Jenny Holzer’s plan for a light projection in the area’s Whitewater Preserve had been cancelled for fear of the installation’s effect on the valley’s population of sick Bighorn sheep. John Gerrard’s video portrait of a flag pole belching smoke (a piece about oil extraction in Texas which, as the exhibit text informs, asks us “to consider our role in the warming of the planet”) was shut down early due to costs—perhaps including those of the generator required to power it.

“Specter” occupies land inhabited by at least two federally recognized endangered species, the fringe-toed lizard and the desert milk vetch, and abuts conservation land. The concern is that, without the protective infrastructure of parking lots and marked trails, visitors to Desert X installations will ignore signage prohibiting vehicles beyond a certain point, post photos, and in broadcasting their coordinates, encourage further degradation. The desert is easy to destroy. With little rain to nurture new growth, traces left on the landscape can last decades. (For reference, it will take two hundred to three hundred years for the recent damage caused by vandals in Joshua Tree National Park to repair itself, according to former Joshua Tree Superintendent Curt Sauer.) And yet to place Ruby’s orange cube near a parking lot would not serve nearly the same spectacular effect: the sublimity of the iridescent cube air-dropped into the sand.

Western art has been chasing the sublime for centuries. In 1757, Edmund Burke introduced the notion of the sublime to describe the awe-inspiring terror of nature—a nature that was seen as definitively separate from, and not entwined with, the human. In America, white settlers found the sublime in the dramatic expanses of the West and its so-called lack of civilization. Western settlement, the violent project known as Manifest Destiny, gave rise to majestic landscape paintings that worked to stake symbolic claim over “virgin land” through the power of the gaze. In the frontier imagination, picturing nature was part of its possession. This visual appropriation has become literal in the age of Instagram. Consider the recent wildflower super bloom, which saw people—some ferried by helicopter—flocking in doomsday droves to transmit images of themselves trampling poppies. Social media, by the scale of its reach, is becoming a potential force of destruction. This is nature-as-content—the abstraction of the desert to a color scheme and a composition—in which its status as a picture matters more than its history or lived ecology.

Several works in Desert X are estranged from the social realities of the communities they’ve hijacked. The Missoni fabrics that artist Eric Mack whimsically draped over an abandoned gas station, situated in an impoverished community near the Salton Sea, were burned and stolen. As a local photographer tried to document the ruin porny exhibit, squatters, refusing to remove themselves from the frame, took a piss on the wall. Of the nineteen artists in the biennial, only Armando Lerma is local. Cara Romero, of the Chemehuevi tribe, and the collective Postcommodity are the sole indigenous artists represented. “Initially, there was a big surprise for me in learning that I was the only Southern California Native to be invited to participate in a response to the landscape,” Romero told the Desert Sun. She describes writing a letter to the Agua Caliente Tribal Council requesting their blessing before installing her billboard photography on their ancestral lands. This is how we relate to each other and honor each other’s ancestral lands. I received permission.” Did the other artists do the same? “Is the goal just to make objects and bring in tourist dollars or is the goal to present and promote an understanding—between cultures and ethnicities—but also a human understanding of the history of the region?” asked artist Gerald Clarke, a professor and member of Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, in an interview over the phone. 

This is nature-as-content—the abstraction of the desert to a color scheme and a composition.

Coachella, whose hippie-glam (and often racist) brand is so powerful that the festival’s promoter Goldenvoice has trademarked the name of the area, is Desert X’s largest benefactor. And like Coachella, Desert X is a playground for the rich, part of a marketing strategy aimed at tourists and snowbirds. An artwork by Ruby, who’s just launched a new high-end fashion line, is ultimately a luxury commodity, one whose lacquer of philosophical rhetoric is more branding device than intellectual exercise. Even those works at Desert X that attempt a more meaningful, and less spectacular, engagement with the landscape—Chris Taylor and Steve Badgett’s solar-powered floating lab, or Postcommodity’s film about the hegemonic narratives of Palm Springs’ midcentury architecture—as examples of “creative placemaking” must still squeeze their message within the larger capitalist juggernaut that threatens to neuter and subsume them. (The aestheticization of dissent is a common maneuver in the art world—see the Seventh Berlin Biennale, in which the curator-sanctioned encampment of Occupy activists was compared to a “human zoo.”) While Coachella’s VIP “safari camping” colonial wet dream pass costs $9,500, and a private bus tour of Desert X is available at a suggested donation of $2,500, on the eastern side of the Coachella Valley, 39 percent of people are living in poverty. Where the pink gated communities and golf courses give way to date farms and vineyards, a significant portion of these residents are farmworkers from Latin America, whose lives to the photo-happy festival-goer are often invisible.

Leaving a wake of plastic water bottles and car exhaust—a 2017 environmental impact report estimated that Coachella and its associated festivals Stage Coach and Desert Trip produce 107 tons of solid waste each day—these events that bolster the experience economy threaten to overwhelm the region’s limited resources. And such examples of “art without constraint” are getting bigger and bigger. As locals find it harder to rent or buy houses that are increasingly snapped up as vacation rentals, and already overtaxed water supplies are routed to coastal cities, the unlucky are priced out of basic needs. In the future, maybe no one will live in the desert. Maybe it will become nothing more than a pop-up pleasure zone, temporary stage set for a stunning display, theme parks to snap and tag a quick shot of before returning to your Airbnb, or gilded bunker, as everything outside the frame is scorched and dead.

A week after seeing Sterling Ruby’s sculpture, I drove north of Palm Springs to the high desert. Off Old Woman Springs Road, between the towns of Landers and Lucerne Valley, is the Creosote Rings Preserve. At one time, I might have said the preserve was in “the middle of nowhere,” but everywhere is somewhere—the desert’s abundance is just not packaged in forms many are taught to recognize. Emptiness, it turns out, is more a matter of perception than an actual state. The primary attraction of the preserve, the creosote bush known as King Clone, is unspectacular: it appears much like all the other creosote covering the desert floor, with their ubiquitous bone-white branches spindling close to the sand and waxy nibs of leaves. But the King Clone, at approximately 11,700 years old, is one of the oldest living beings in the world. The plant’s stem splits itself, so that when old parts die, the cloned ones continue growing, and its deep root structure hosts many other plants and animals. Neither a salve for modernity nor dystopian menace, the desert plant offers no grand narrative, only a lesson, against precarious circumstances, in collaboration and resilience.